Studying for a Chemistry PhD will not only make you a skilled independent researcher but will open up opportunities in a wide range of careers. Known as the ‘central science’ Chemistry connects all the sciences together, making it a brilliant choice for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary PhD research.
If you are thinking of doing a PhD, you should have an idea of the field you want to work in and can search for vacancies in that field or related.
When you start your application will depend upon whether you are applying for an advertised project, or to a university departments graduate school. Advertised projects are typically funded and will have a specific deadline on the application information; however, sometimes they can be open ended. Graduate schools will usually set a deadline for applications each year.
Having a Masters qualification (MSc/MChem/MRes) may help support your application for a Chemistry PhD, but it may be possible to apply without one if you have a relevant undergraduate degree and experience in the necessary methodologies and techniques required by your research project.
Some funded PhD projects in Chemistry include a foundation year that provides core subject knowledge and technical training before a student begins their research. These programmes may sometimes award an integrated MSc degree at the end of this initial year.
To find the right supervisor you need to be aware of the field of Chemistry you want to work in and universities you want to study at.
From this you can research specific academics at those institutions. Making a list of pros and cons of the academic and university may help your final decision.
Academics generally welcome contact from students who are genuinely interested in their work; therefore, emailing a potential supervisor is usually a good idea. As you will be working with your supervisor for the next 3-4 years you need to be able to see yourself getting along with them.
This will vary depending on the institution and programme you have applied for. You may experience either a formal or informal interview, with the supervisor or an academic panel.
Interview questions will usually start with an opportunity for you to introduce yourself and then move on to asking what you enjoyed in your undergraduate or Masters degree. They will also want to know why you want to do a Chemistry PhD, specifically that project and what skills you can bring to it.
It is advisable to do some reading on the supervisor’s research, then you can link your answers to it. Also, the likelihood is they may ask you a question on it. At the end there will be a period for you to ask questions, think of a lot of questions in advance. Asking questions shows genuine interest; plus, it’s a good way of finding out exactly what you would be doing.
PhD projects in Chemistry and Chemical Sciences take various forms:
Chemistry is a priority research area in countries around the world, with some countries such as Germany, China, the USA and Japan excelling in this branch of the sciences. The best place to start looking for more information is our set of guides to PhD study abroad.
Chemistry PhDs can either be funded by an internal/external source, or you may have to self-fund; advertised projects will typically say whether they have funding attached (you can view this information in the listings for Chemistry PhDs here on FindAPhD.
The largest funder for Chemistry PhDs in the UK is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Their studentships provide full payment for your fees (along with any consumable costs or bench fees) as well as a generous tax-free living allowance and money towards research expenses for fieldwork, conference travel and similar.
Other councils such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council also fund some UK PhD research in Chemistry, sometimes in partnership with the EPSRC or each other.
Universities often fund Chemistry PhD students out of their own research budgets. It's often the case that a lab or research group with ongoing research funding will use some of this to support a number of doctoral students (as well as PostDocs and sometimes research Masters students) whose work contributes to the department's broader goals.
The value of this kind of funding varies. It may provide a full studentship, covering all of your main expenses, or it may be limited to partial funding (such as a fee waiver).
It's difficult to completely self-fund a PhD in a STEM subject such as Chemistry, as this kind of work incurs substantial additional expenses for consumables and equipment, alongside your PhD fees. Studentships and other funding packages typically account for these supplementary costs, but fully independent students may need to pay them themselves.
When students do self fund, they usually make use of student finance, such as the UK doctoral loan, or draw on savings. Working part-time during a Chemistry is possible, but difficult, making it unadvisable to rely substantially on earned income as a source of funding.
Some Chemistry PhDs are offered as Graduate Teaching Assistantship contracts. These provide a salary during your PhD in exchange for work as a tutor, mentor and / or demonstrator for undergraduate students. This is broadly similar to the teaching you may do anyway during a PhD, but the responsibilities for GTAs are usually greater.
One advantage of this kind of funding is that it provides additional professional experience alongside income. This can be very valuable if you plan on pursuing an academic career with your PhD.
Your main focus as a Chemistry PhD student will be designing and running experiments to collect data for analysis and evaluation. Once you have sufficient results you will be ready to write up your conclusions and present them for examination as a PhD thesis that proves or disproves your initial hypothesis.
Regardless of your actual results, you will need to provide a worthwhile original contribution to knowledge in order for your work to qualify for the award of a doctoral degree.
You will have at least one primary supervisor assigned to you. Their job is to guide your research and provide feedback on your work in progress. A good supervisory relationship in Chemistry usually involves the following:
Your supervisor will also help if there are any problems during your PhD.
You may also have a second supervisor assigned to your PhD. They will usually be a more junior academic from within your research group, responsible for admin and pastoral support, as well as assistance with specific activities or techniques.
Industrial PhDs may have a second supervisor or independent advisor from outside your university. This person probably won't be an academic and will instead focus on the wider implications or applications of your research.
"Safety" is one of the words you'll hear most often in a Chemistry department. The equipment and materials you'll use on a daily basis will be potentially dangerous (as well as expensive) and you'll need proper training to work with them correctly.
This usually takes the following forms:
The course structure for a Chemistry PhD will vary depending upon institution, but many will require you to not only do the research but attend a certain number of non-examined departmental lectures and seminars.
The assessment criteria and timing will vary depending upon institution, but you must usually complete the following before you can graduate:
There are many jobs, both within and outside of academia, that having a PhD in Chemistry allows you to do.
The first step on an academic career in Chemistry, following a PhD, is usually a PostDoctoral position. This is a fixed-term research project that provides a platform from which to apply for permanent academic jobs.
An academic career in Chemistry usually progresses from Assistant Lecturer through to Senior Lecturer. Very successful and renowned researchers then move on to Reader and Professor positions, at which point they are likely to be leading their own research groups.
University departments may also offer non-lecturing roles such as research assistantships or laboratory assistant positions.
Some people think that with a PhD academia is the only career course you can follow but this isn’t the case. A wide variety of non-academic roles also exist.
Opportunities also exist to work as an industrial chemist, developing new products or applications. Some Chemistry graduates go on to use their skills in more diverse fields that use their research skillset, but aren't directly related to science.
Last updated - 04/02/2021